Presidential nominees speak at Columbia University

By Jackie Bischof
October 19, 2008

Students at Columbia University stood to applaud enthusiastically when Sen. Barack Obama spoke at his alma mater tonight. Obama was speaking as part of a non-partisan forum to commemorate the events of 9/11, and to call attention to national service provided by Americans.

Obama spoke after Sen. John McCain, who only received polite applause from the hundreds of students who watched the speeches on a big screen on campus grounds.

The appearance of the presidential candidates was part of a two-day summit at the university organised by ServiceNation, a collaboration of individuals and organisations seeking to encourage American citizens to engage in national service.

However, not all members of the audience were decided in their support of either candidate, and some were unsure of the presidential candidates abilities to bring about change in America.

Students from World Vision and Columbia’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship felt that real change was in the hands of citizen volunteers, not with Obama or McCain.

The students, dressed in orange shirts that distinguished them from the large crowd, were collecting money for World Vision’s work in a hurricane-ravaged Haiti.

“I don’t think one candidate can take the entire nation to the next level,” said Columbia University Information Science sophomore and ICF member Lawrence Anglion. “The citizens of America recognise that we need to get on the ball.”
Obama and McCain answered questions from PBS NewsHour senior correspondent and political editor Judy Woodruff, and managing editor of TIME, Richard Stengel, about how community service and volunteerism has defined the American nation, and how a plan of supporting national service would be accommodated in a new administration.
Both Obama and McCain agreed on the need to increase federal support for national service, but differed in the ways in which they envisioned this support.

McCain did not feel that increased funding to national service initiatives, such as the $3 billion Obama has set aside in his service plan, would be a reasonable way to support national service.

“A lot of these young people are more proud of the fact that we recognise them walking around with red jackets that say ‘City Year’ than about the money!” said McCain. “I’d be glad to reward them as much as possible, but you want to be careful that the the reason they [volunteer] is not the financial reward but the reward is the satisfaction of serving their country.”

McCain argued that the private sector should be more involved in service initiatives and that government shouldn’t solely be responsible for national service initiatives.

However, Obama received thunderous applause when he proposed increased financial reward and recognition for students and young people who engage in diverse initiatives of service.

Obama called his time doing community service “the best education he ever had.”

“I want every young person around this country to recognise they will not fulfil their full potential until they hitch their wagon to something better,” he said.

Some ICF members watching the speech said they had doubts about the abilities of the candidates to create significant change in the coming years, but were happy that national service was being given such high-profile support.

“The recognition of the necessity of service and going beyond ourselves is great and it shows that something is changing,” said ICF member and Political Science senior Gabrielle Apollon. “But I don’t want it to be just a photo event. This doesn’t mean anything to me until something is done and bills are enacted.”

“I like what he said about giving funding and scholarships to teachers,” said Apollon. “So many of my friends want to be in Teach for America but they can’t because of the financial constraints.”

Creative Writing graduate and sponsored World Vision artist Johnathan Walton said that people in national service are more likely to fulfill government’s mandate than government themselves.

“Obama is not what we need. McCain is not what we need,” he said. “Government can’t love people and bills can’t be compassionate. You can’t legislate love!”

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